Last week was Refugee Week, though you wouldn’t have known it in a country now obsessed with borders and controls and frighteningly comfortable with demonising outsiders. I only learnt about it from the estimable Passing Time blog. The day after the appalling referendum result we sat down to watch Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi’s strange but compelling documentary which observes the impact of the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa with a calm and unembroidered stare.

Rosi’s film is quite different to what you might expect of a film about the refugee crisis, the director’s approach being to simply let the camera observe what was there in front of the lens. Rosi offers no commentary or analysis of the refugee crisis, or of its impact on the residents of Lampedusa. It’s not a criticism, but it made for a somewhat puzzling film: why, for instance, did Rosi make a young Lampedusan boy and his catapult the central figure of his film?

Before last summer’s mass migration from Turkey to the Greek islands, it was the island of Lampedusa which most frequently in the news as the epicentre of the migration crisis, an island where approximately 400,000 refugees have attempted to cross and 15,000 have died in the process.. Situated 150 miles south of Sicily but only 70 miles from the African coast, Lampedusa became the first port of call for hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees hoping to make a new life in Europe.

In 2015, Rosi spent several months living on the island and filming details of the lives of its inhabitants. In editing the footage he accumulated, Rosi has placed twelve year old Samuele at the centre of his film. Fire at Sea begins with a sequence in which Samuele, obsessed with hunting and shooting, searches a pine tree for a suitable branch from which to fashion a slingshot. As the film observes the boy exploring the wind-scoured land, stalking birds and gaining his sea legs for a future in which, like most of the island’s men he will go to sea, Rosi places Samuele and his family in the wider context of the life of the Lampedusan people.

Fire at Sea Samuele and catapult
Fire at Sea: Samuele and his catapult

Without comment the camera observes a DJ on the local radio station as he plays requests for sentimental Sicilian folk songs. Fishermen, whose ranks Samuele will join when he grows up,  tell stories of their lives at sea. The island’s kindly doctor chats with Samuele about his feelings of anxiety, and treats his lazy eye.

Rosi presents us with a picture of life for the islanders being essentially tough, but settled. By contrast, the other strand of this quiet, understated film plunges us into the world of terrifying danger and uncertainty experienced by the migrants. In scenes which are very hard to watch, Rosi places us in the midst of the rescue operations mounted by the Italian navy in the waters off the island. None of the TV news coverage of migrant rescues that I have seen have taken us closer to the dreadful process of migrant rescue: the boats, packed to the gills, from which we hear panic-stricken, despairing messages picked up by the navy as a migrant boat begins to sink in rough seas; the patrol boats racing out in the darkness to try and locate them; the gruesome cargo of corpses and the dehydrated near-dead that must be disembarked before the living.

The migrants are from every place where  normal life has been smashed to smithereens: Syrian war refugees clamber aboard the rescue vessels alongside  men, women and children from Eritrea, Libya, Nigeria, Mali and all points between. Rescued and processed into the care of the Italian authorities, they are clothed like angels in silver and gold survival blankets.

The scenes Rosi filmed as the migrants are rescued and processed are a reminder that – in the words of Warsan Shire’s poem, ‘no-one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark’ (go here for the complete poem):

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

There is a disaster unfolding at sea: the film’s title suggests this, but is also the title of one of the folk songs played by the  radio DJ, a song that evokes the memory of the Second World War, when flares launched by patrolling gunboats turned the sea red. In one scene filmed in Samuele’s home, the camera observes his aunt prepare a meal while the radio announces the latest migrant death tolls – before the DJ reads out a dedication and plays another old Sicilian folk song. Perhaps Rosi is suggesting that while a human catastrophe unfolds at sea, the routine daily life of the islanders carries on as normal.

Cutting between Samuele’s routine – torturing cacti and slurping seafood spaghetti – and the rescue, processing and aid given to refugees, Rosi demonstrates eloquently what we already know, that tragedy and banality always coexist. That life must go on and that this life can include the romance of a dedicated love song or the perfunctory drinking of coffee, is something that Rosi has clearly taken time and patience to document.
– Harriet Warman, Cine Vue

Fire at Sea the doctor
Fire at Sea: the island doctor

The island’s doctor provides a direct link between the twin poles of the film: warm and patient, he treats the boy Samuele, and also takes pleasure, as he scans the belly of a pregnant migrant woman, in showing her the pulsing images of her two growing babies. Less happily, he is also employed regularly in examining the bodies we see being dragged from overheated and overcrowded boat holds, or treating migrants with chemical burns caused by spilled boat fuel. He recalls finding women who had given birth during the crossing then died alongside their babies, the two bodies still joined by an umbilical cord. pointing out that, in contrast to what his friends tell him, He insists that he will never get used to dealing with so much death and suffering, and laments the affronts the migrants have to undergo, even in death.

Rosi’s film is the complete opposite of the angry documentation of a humanitarian crisis that many viewers might expect. Rosi offers neither commentary nor judgement, but simply shows us what his camera saw. It is not an easy film to watch, perhaps because the lesson its scenes come to drive home is that, while desperate people risk their lives in decrepit boats to reach the safety of Europe’s shores, a woman prepares an evening meal while a boy settles down to his homework.

Fire at Sea: trailer

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